Avon Fantasy Reader/Issue 10/Storm Warning
by Donald A. Wollheim
The story of "Storm Warning" grew directly out of the great impression that G. R. Stewart's remarkable book "Storm" made upon the writer. Constantly your editor has been impressed with the sparsity of our actual knowledge of the world—the things we think we know best so often turn out to be scarcely more than isolated fragments of a great knowledge, our sciences mere segments of other sciences. Biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, all seem to interlock, and the more we know the more we realize how tenuous our grip on universal understanding is. "Storm" impressed the writer with this observation on even that most prosaic of topics, the weather. And "Storm Warning" was the result.
We had no indication of the odd business that was going to happen. The boys at the Weather Bureau still think they had all the fun. They think that being out in it wasn't as good as sitting in the station watching it all come about. Only there are some things they'll never understand about the weather, some things I think Ed and I alone will know. We were in the middle of it all.
We were riding out of Rock Springs at sunrise on a three day leave but the Chief Meteorologist had asked us to take the night shift until then. It was just as well, for the Bureau was on the edge of the desert and we had our duffle and horses tethered outside. The meteor fall of two days before came as a marvelous excuse to go out into the badlands of the Great Divide Basin. I've always liked to ride out in the glorious, wide, empty Wyoming land and any excuse to spend three days out there was good.
Free also from the routine and monotony of the Weather Bureau as well. Of course I like the work, but still the open air and the open spaces must be bred in the blood of all of us born and raised out there in the West. I know it's tame and civilized today but even so, to jog along with a haphazard sort of prospector's aim was really fine.
Aim was of course to try and locate fragments of the big meteor that landed out there two nights before. Lots of people had seen it, myself for one, because I happened to be out on the roof taking readings. There had been a brilliant streak of blue-white across the northern sky and a sharp flash way off like an explosion. I understand that folks in Superior claim to have felt a jolt as if something big had smashed up out there in the trackless dust and dunes between Mud Lake, Morrow Creek, and the town. That's quite a lot of empty territory and Ed and I had about as much chance of finding the meteor as a needle in the haystack. But it was a swell excuse.
"Cold Front coming down from Saskatchewan," the Chief said as he came in and looked over our charts. We were getting ready to leave. "Unusual for this time of year."
I nodded, unworried. We had the mountains between us and any cold wave from that direction. We wouldn't freeze at night even if the cold got down as far as Casper, which would be highly unlikely. The Chief was bending low over the map tracing out the various lows and highs. He frowned a bit when he came to a new little low I had traced in from the first reports of that day.
"An unreported low turning up just off Washington State. That's really odd. Since when are storms originating so close?"
"Coming east too and growing according to Seattle's wire," said Ed. The Chief sat down and stared at the map.
"I don't like it, it's all out of whack," he said. Then he stood up and held out his hand to me.
"Well, goodbye, boys and have a good time. If you find that meteor, bring me back a chunk too."
"Sure will," I said and we shook hands and yelled at the other boys and went out.
The first rays of the sun were just coming up as we left. Outwards we jogged easily, the town and civilization fell behind rapidly and we went on into the golden glow of the Sweetwater basin.
We made good time that day though we didn't hurry. We kept up a nice steady trot, resting now and then. We didn't talk much for we were too busy just breathing in the clean open air and enjoying the sensation of freedom. An occasional desert toad or the flash of a disturbed snake were the only signs of life we saw and the multiform shapes of the cactus and sage our only garden. It was enough.
Towards evening at the bureau, the Chief first noted the slight growth of the Southern Warm Front. A report from Utah set him buzzing. The Cold Front had now reached the borders of Wyoming and was still moving on. The baby storm that was born where it had no right to be born was still growing and now occupied a large area over Oregon and Idaho. The Chief was heard to remark that the conjunction of things seemed to place south west Wyoming as a possible center of lots of wild weather. He started worrying a bit about the two of us.
We didn't worry. We didn't have any real indications but our weather men's senses acted aright. We felt a sort of odd expectancy in the air as we camped. Nothing definite, a sort of extra stillness in the air as if forces were pressing from all sides, forces that were still far away and still vague.
We talked a bit around the fire about the storm that the Chief had noted when we left. Ed thought it would fizzle out. I think I had a feeling then that it wasn't just a short-lived freak. I think I had an idea we might see something of it.
Next morning there was just the faintest trace of extra chill in the air. I'm used to Wyoming mornings and I know just how cold it ought to be at sunrise and how hot. This morning it was just the slightest bit chillier.
"That Canadian Cold Front must have reached the other side of the mountains," I said, waving towards the great rampart of the Rockies to the East. "We're probably feeling the only tendril of it to get over."
"That's sort of odd," Ed said. "There shouldn't be any getting over at all. It must be a very powerful front."
I nodded and wondered what the boys in the bureau were getting on it. Probably snowfall in the northern part of the state. If I had known what the Chief knew that morning, I might have started back in a hurry. But we didn't and I guess we saw something that no one else has as a result.
For at the bureau, the Chief knew at morning that we were in for some extraordinary weather. He predicted for the Rock Springs paper the wildest storm ever. You see the Southern Warm Front had definitely gotten a salient through by at time. It was already giving Salt Lake City one of the hottest days on record and what was more the warm wave was coming our way steadily.
The next thing was that storm from the west. It was growing smaller and tighter again and had passed over Idaho Falls two hours ago raging and. It was heading in our direction like an arrow from a bow.
And finally the Cold Front had done the impossible. It was beginning to sweep over the heights and to swoop down into the Divide basin, heading straight for the Warm Front coming north.
And there was Ed and I with a premonition and nothing more. We were riding along right into the conflux of the whole mess and we were looking for meteors. We were looking for what we expected to be some big craters or pockmarks in the ground and a bunch of pitted iron scattered around a vicinity of several miles.
Towards ten that morning we came over a slight rise and dipped down into a bowl-shaped region. I stopped and stared around. Ed wheeled and came back.
"What's up?" he asked.
"Notice anything funny in the air?" I asked and gave a deep sniff.
Ed drew in some sharp breaths and stared around.
"Sort of odd," he finally admitted. "Nothing I can place but it's sort of odd."
"Yes," I answered. "Odd is the word. I can't place anything wrong but it seems to smell differently than the air did a few minutes ago." I stared around and wrinkled my brow.
"I think I know now," I finally said. "The temperature's changed somewhat. It's warmer."
Ed frowned. "Colder, I'd say."
I became puzzled. I waved my hands through the air a bit. "I think you're right, I must be wrong. Now it feels a bit colder."
Ed walked his horse a bit. I stared slowly after him.
"Y'know," I finally said, "I think I've got it. It's colder but it smells like warm air. I don't know if you can quite understand, what I'm driving at. It smells as if the temperature should be steaming yet actually it's sort of chilly. It doesn't smell natural."
Ed nodded. He was puzzled and so was I. There was something wrong here. Something that got on our nerves.
Far ahead I saw something sparkle. I stared as we rode and then mentioned it to Ed. He looked too.
There was something, no, several things that glistened far off at the edge of the bowl near the next rise. They looked like bits of glass.
"The meteor, maybe?" queried Ed. I shrugged. We rode steadily on in that direction. "Say, something smells funny here," Ed remarked, stopping again.
I came up next to him. He was right. The sense of strangeness in the air had increased the nearer we got to the glistening things. It was still the same—warm-cold. There was something else again. Something like vegetation in the air. Like something growing only there still wasn't any more growth than the usual cacti and sage. It smelled differently from any other growing things and yet it smelled like vegetation.
It was unearthly, that air. I can't describe it any other way. It was unearthly. Plant smells that couldn't come from any plant or forest I had ever encountered, a cold warmness unlike anything that meteorology records.
Yet it wasn't bad, it wasn't frightening. It was just peculiar. It was mystifying.
We could see the sparkling things now. They were like bubbles of glass. Big iridescent glassy balls lying like some giant child's marbles on the desert.
We knew then that, if they were the meteors, they were like none that had ever been recorded before. We knew we had made a find that would go on record and yet we weren't elated. We were ill at ease. It was the funny weather that did it.
I noticed then for the first time that there were black clouds beginning to show far in the west. It was the first wave of the storm.
We rode nearer the strange bubbles. We could see them clearly now. They seemed cracked a bit as if they had broken. One had a gaping hole in its side. It must have been hollow, just a glassy shell.
Ed and I stopped short at the same time. Or rather our horses did. We were willing, too, but our mounts got the idea just as quickly. It was the smell.
There was a new odor in the air. A sudden one. It had just that instant wafted itself across our nostrils. It was at first repelling. That's why we stopped. But sniffing it a bit took a little of the repulsion away. It wasn't so very awful.
In fact it wasn't actually bad. It was had to describe. Not exactly like anything I've ever smelled before. Vaguely it was acrid and vaguely it was dry. Mostly I would say that it smelled like a curious mixture of burning rubber and zinc ointment.
It grew stronger as we sat there and then it began to die away a bit as a slight breeze moved it on. We both got the impression at the same time that it had come from the broken glass bubbles.
We rode on cautiously.
"Maybe the meteors landed in an alkali pool and there's been some chemical reaction going on," I opined to Ed. "Could be," he said and we rode nearer.
The black clouds were piling up now in the west and a faint breeze began to stir. Ed and I dismounted to look into the odd meteors.
"Looks like we better get under cover till it blows over," he remarked.
"We've got a few minutes, I think," I replied. "Besides by the rise right here is just about the best cover around."
Back at the Weather Station, the temperature was rising steadily and the Chief was getting everything battened down. The storm was coming and, in meeting the thin edge of the Warm Front wedge which was now passing Rock Springs, would create havoc. Then the cold wave might get that far because it was over the Divide and heading for the other two. In a few minutes all hell would break loose. The Chief wondered where we were.
We were looking into the hole in the nearest bubble. The things—they must have been the meteors we were looking for—were about twelve feet in diameter and pretty nearly perfect spheres. They were thick-shelled, smooth, and very glassy and iridescent, like mother-of-pearl on the inside. They were quite hollow, and we couldn't figure out what they were made of and what they could be. Nothing I had read or learned could explain the things. That they were meteoric in origin I was sure because there was the evidence of the scattered ground and broken rocks about to show the impact. Yet they must have been terrifically tough or something because, save for the few cracks and the hole in one, they were intact.
Inside they stank of that rubber-zinc smell. It was powerful. Very powerful.
The stink had obviously come from the bubbles—there was no pool around.
It suddenly occurred to me that we had breathed air of some other world. For if these things were meteoric and the smell had come from the inside, then it was no air of Earth that smelled like burning rubber and zinc ointment. It was the air of somewhere, I don't know where, somewhere out among the endless reaches of the stars. Somewhere out there, out beyond the sun.
Another thought occurred to me.
"Do you think these things could have carried some creatures?" I asked. Ed stared at me a while, bit his lip, looked slowly around. He shrugged his shoulders without saying anything.
"The oddness of the air," I went on, "maybe it was like the air of some other world. Maybe they were trying to make our own air more breathable to them?"
Ed didn't answer that one either. It didn't require any. And he didn't ask me whom I meant by "they."
"And what makes the stink?" Ed finally commented. This time I shrugged.
Around us the smell waxed and waned. As if breezes were playing with a stream of noxious vapor. And yet, I suddenly realized, no breezes were blowing. The air was quite still. But still the smell grew stronger at one moment and weaker at another.
It was as if some creature were moving silently about, leaving no trace of itself save its scent.
"Look!" said Ed suddenly. He pointed to the west. I looked and stared at the sky. The whole west was a mass of seething dark clouds. But it was a curiously arrested mass. There was a sharply defined edge to the area—an edge of blue against which the black clouds piled in vain and we could see lightnings crackle and flash in the storm. Yet no wind reached us and no thunder and the sky was serene and blue overhead.
It looked as if the storm had come up against a solid obstacle beyond which it could go no further. But there was no such obstacle visible.
As a meteorologist I knew that meant there must be a powerful opposing bank of air shielding us. We could not see it for air is invisible but it must be there straining against the cloud bank.
I noticed now that a pressure was growing in my ears. Something was concentrating around this area. We were in for it if the forces of the air ever broke through.
The stink welled up powerfully, suddenly. More so than it had before. It seemed to pass by us and through us and around us. Then again it was gone. It almost vanished from everything. We could detect but the faintest traces of it after that passage.
Ed and I rode out to an outcropping of rock. We dismounted. We got well under the rock and we waited. It wouldn't be long before the protecting air bank gave way.
To the south now, storm clouds materialized, and then finally to the east and north. As I learned later the cold wave had eddied around us and met the Equatorial Front at last and now we were huddled with some inexplicable globes from unknown space and a bunch of strange stinks and atmosphere, ringed around by a seething raging sea of storm. And yet above, the sky was still blue and clear.
We were in the midst of a dead center, in the midst of an inexplicable high pressure area, most of whose air did not originate on Earth and the powers of the Earth's atmosphere were hurling themselves against us from every direction.
I saw that the area of clear was slowly but surely contracting. A lancing freezing breeze suddenly enveloped us. A breakthrough from the north. But it seemed to become curiously blunted and broken up by countless thrusts of the oddly reeking air. I realized as the jet of cold air reached my lungs how different the atmosphere was in this pocket from that we are accustomed to breathe. It was truly alien.
And yet always this strange air seemed to resist the advances of the normal. Another slight breeze, this one wet and warm came in from the south and again a whirl of the rubbery odored wind dispersed it.
Then there came an intolerable moment. A moment of terrific compression and rise and the black storm clouds tore through in wild streaks overhead and spiderwebbed the sky rapidly into total darkness. The area of peace became narrow, restricted, enclosed by walls of lightning-shot storm.
I got an odd impression then. That we were embattled. That the forces of nature were determined to annihilate and utterly rip apart our little region of invading alien air, that the meteor gases were determined to resist to the last to keep their curious stinks intact!
The lightning flashed and flashed. Endless giant bolts yet always outside our region. And we heard them only when a lance of cold or hot storm pierced through to us. The alien air clearly would not transmit the sounds it was standing rigid against the interrupting vibrations!
Ed and I have conferred since then. We both agree that we had the same impressions. That a genuine life and death fight was going on. That that pocket of otherworldly air seemed to be consciously fighting to keep itself from being absorbed by the storm, from being diffused to total destruction so that no atom of the unearthly gases could exist save as incredibly rare elements in the total atmosphere of the Earth. It seemed to be trying to maintain its entirety, its identity.
It was in that last period that Ed and I saw the inexplicable things. We saw the things that don't make sense. For we saw part of the clear area suddenly contract as if some of the defending force had been withdrawn and we saw suddenly one of the glass globes, one of the least cracked, whirl up from the ground and rush into the storm, rush straight up!
It was moving through the clear air without any visible propulsion. We thought then that perhaps a jet of the storm had pierced through to carry it up as a ball will ride on a jet of water. But no, for the globe hurled itself into the storm, contrary to the direction of the winds, against the forces of the storm.
The globe was trying to break through the ceiling of black to the clear air above. But the constant lightnings that flickered around it kept it in our sight. Again and again it darted against the mass of clouds and was hurled wildly and furiously about. For a moment we thought it would force its way out of our sight and then there was a sudden flash and a sharp snap that even we heard and a few fragments of glassy stuff came falling down.
I realized suddenly that the storm had actually abated its fury while this strange thing was going on. As if the very elements themselves watched the outcome of the ball's flight. And now the storm raged in again with renewed vigor as if triumphant.
The area was definitely being forced back. Soon not more than twenty yards separated us from the front and we could hear the dull endless rumbling of the thunder. The stink was back again all around us. Tiny trickles of cold wet air broke through now and then but were still being lost in the smell.
Then came the last moment. A sort of terrible crescendo in the storm and the stink finally broke for good. I saw it and what I saw is inexplicable save for a very fantastic hypothesis which I believe only because I must.
After that revealing moment the last shreds of the stellar air broke for good. For only a brief instant more the storm raged, an instant in which for the first and last time Ed and I got soaked and hurled around by the wind and rain and the horses almost broke their tethers. Then it was over. The dark clouds lifted rapidly. In a few minutes they had incredibly thinned out, there was a slight rain, and by the time ten more minutes had passed, the sun was shining, the sky was blue and things were almost dry. On the northern horizon faint shreds of cloud lingered but that was all.
Of the meteor globes only a few shards and splinters remained.
I've talked the matter over as I said and there is no really acceptable answer to the whole curious business. We know that we don't really know very much about things. As a meteorologist I can tell you that. Why, we've been discussing the weather from caveman days and yet it was not more than twenty years ago that the theory of weather fronts was formulated which first allowed really decent predictions. And the theory of fronts, which is what we modern weather people use, has lots of imperfections in it. For instance we still don't know anything about the why of things. Why does a storm form at all? We know how it grows, sure, but why did it start and how?
We don't know. We don't know very much at all. We breathe this air and it was only in the last century that we first began to find out how many different elements and gases made it up and we don't know for sure yet.
I think it's possible that living things may exist that are made of gas only. We're protoplasm you know but do you know that we're not solid matter—we're liquid? Protoplasm is liquid. Flesh is liquid arranged in suspension in cells of dead substances. And most of us is water, and water is the origin of all life. And water is composed of two common gases, hydrogen and oxygen. And those gases are found everywhere in the universe astronomers say.
So I say that if the elements of our life can be boiled down to gases, then why can't gases combine as gases and still have the element of life? Water is always present in the atmosphere as vapor, then why not a life as a sort of water vapor variant?
I think it makes sense. I think it might smell odd if we accidentally inhaled such a vapor life. Because we could inhale it like we do water vapor. It might smell, say for example, like burning rubber and zinc ointment.
Because in that last moment when the storm was at its height and the area of unearthly air was compressed to its smallest I noticed that at one point a definite outline could be seen against the black clouds and the blue-white glare of the lightning. A section of the otherworldly air had been sort of trapped and pinned off from the main section. And it had a definite shape under that terrible storm pressure.
I can't say what it was like because it wasn't exactly like anything save maybe a great amoeba being pushed down against the ground. There were lots of arms and stubby wiggly things sticking out and the main mass was squashy and thick. And it flowed along the ground sort of like a snail. It seemed to be writhing and trying to slither away and spread out.
It couldn't because the storm was hammering at it. And I definitely saw a big black mass, round like a fist, hammer at one section of the thing's base as it tried to spread out.
Then the storm smashed down hard on the odd outline and it squashed out flat and was gone.
I imagine there were others and I think that when they aren't being compressed they could have spread out naturally about a hundred yards along the ground and upwards. And I think we have things like that only of Earthly origin right in the atmosphere now. And I don't think that our breathing and walking and living right through them means a thing to them at all. But they objected to the invaders from space. They smelled differently, they were different, they must have come from a different sort of planet, a planet cooler than ours with deserts and vegetation different from our own. And they would have tried to remake our atmosphere into one of their own. And our native air-dwellers stopped them.
That's what I think.